One of the greatest and most prolific composers of the Baroque era and actually of all of music history, George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany. Paradoxically, as a master of opera and sacred music, he did not write many compositions with German texts. He lived at a time when operas were being composed exclusively in Italian, and in London, his adopted home, the English language was cultivated in the music of the Church of England. Handel arrived in England when he was 27 years old, and he died there at age 74 as a respected and honoured “English” artist. He won popularity with the locals for the quality of his compositions in general and especially for his sacred works that tied in with the tradition of local composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. With texts in the English language, the compositions emphasised choral numbers or were purely choral works. It was along these lines that he created, above all, the series of oratorios that remain famous to this day (Messiah, Judas Maccabeus, Israel in Egypt, etc.). His oeuvre also contains a very large number of anthems – liturgical choral compositions in the manner of a motet or cantata, a tradition of which had been maintained in England as far back as the High Renaissance, and especially in the works of Henry Purcell. Since Purcell’s day, England had not had another great composer until Handel arrived.
Today, Messiah is by far the most frequently performed of Handel’s oratorios. Only a workaholic combined with a genius could have written such a vast work in just 24 days. Composing at a breakneck speed was normal for George Frideric Handel – he wrote all his great oratorios and operas in just a few weeks, and the pauses between them were not long. The only thing that could slow down his composing was the hectic pace of seasons when his works were being performed.
In 1741, when the story of the “oratorio of all oratorios” begins, Handel had been in London for 30 years. He already had many successes to his credit. In the field of Italian opera, those successes alternated with flops caused by cutthroat competition between London’s several opera companies. However, when it comes to sacred music and especially the oratorio, Handel can be said to have been constantly enormously popular with the London public. Many accounts have been preserved of the triumphs of his works and of commissions from influential persons beginning with the king.
When England became embroiled in a war, it ceased to be a favourable place for artistic activity, and when Handel was facing one of the failures of his opera company, he was invited to visit Dublin, Ireland, by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire. Among other things, Handel wished to present himself there with a new work. His friend and supporter, the man of letters, critic, and arts patron Charles Jennens (1700–1773), who had already written the libretto for Handel’s oratorio Saul and had compiled biblical texts for the oratorio Israel in Egypt, prepared another collection of biblical texts suitable for performing during Holy Week. Handel initially hesitated to begin work on the musical setting, but then he became completely absorbed by his work. He received the text for the oratorio on 10 July, and he wrote the music between 22 August and 14 September 1741. The original score, 259 pages long, shows signs of haste and contains errors of notation, but there are not that many considering the length of the composition.
The title Messiah comes from a word in Hebrew that means “the anointed one”, and in old Christian translations of the Jewish scriptures, it is associated with Christ. In the text of the oratorio, the story of the entire life of Christ is told from his birth to his ministry and on to his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. As its foundation, the work employs Old Testament texts and especially excerpts from the prophet Isaiah and the Book of Psalms. The two best-known choruses take their content from the New Testament book The Revelation of St John.
The accompaniment is written for a typical orchestra of Handel’s day – mostly strings, a few woodwinds, even fewer brass, and timpani. The composer was not even expecting an especially large chorus. It was not until after his death, and especially in the 19th and even 20th centuries, that there were monumental performances with oversized orchestras and choruses. The most famous number of the whole work is the “Hallelujah!” chorus (Part II, Scene 7, No. 44), in which the choral writing initially emphasises unison passages, then gradually becomes more polyphonic, introducing fugato entrances. Other choruses combine homophonic and polyphonic writing, such as “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” (Part I, Scene 3, No. 12), “All We Like Sheep” (Part II, Scene 1, No. 26), and the oratorio’s concluding chorus “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Part III, Scene 4, No. 53).
Händel arrived in Dublin in November 1741 to give a series of subscription concerts in a new concert hall. At the same time, he was still working on small revisions of Messiah and preparing everything required for the April performance. Meanwhile, he faced the unwillingness of the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral to permit the local chorus to perform in the oratorio. That dean was Jonathan Swift, the author and Anglican priest whose writings included the fanciful book Gulliver’s Travels. In the end, Swift allowed the singers to take part.
The oratorio’s premiere was promoted in the Dublin Journal on 27 March 1742: “For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ by Mr. Handel.” This was usual – during intermissions, Handel performed the solo parts in his concertos for organ and orchestra to keep the public from getting bored. The Dublin performance was a great success, as is documented by the critics in the local press. The venue with capacity for an audience of 700 was completely full; the ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their skirts, and the gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home so more people could fit inside.
Upon returning to London, Handel decided that thenceforth he would devote himself exclusively to writing oratorios. He wrote Samson based on Milton’s poetry as well as the supremely dramatic oratorios Belshazzar and Hercules. To support the fight against Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), Handel wrote the rousing Occasional Oratorio, and in celebration of victory at the Battle of Culloden, he gave a performance of Judas Maccabeus. He also attempted to offer Messiah to the Londoners. The Puritans, having already condemned Israel in Egypt on the grounds that the words of the Bible have no place in a secular theatre as an evening entertainment, were again issuing warnings in the press; some even accused Handel of blasphemy. It may have been why Messiah was first performed in London as a “New Sacred Oratorio” and not under its actual title. It was heard on 19 March 1743, then again in 1745 and 1749. It was not until 1750 that Handel began the tradition of yearly performances of Messiah under its real title at the end of Lent or during the Easter season. In Dublin, by contrast, the tradition arose of performing Messiah during Advent.
Handel’s Messiah followed the composer until the end of his life – it was the last work he conducted as a blind, ailing man just eight days before his death. He also made frequent revisions, especially to the arias. The work has a special standing among his oratorios. Although many people regard it as a typical Handel oratorio, in reality it stands apart from its category. Because of its lack of concrete dramatic action, it can be characterised as an epic oratorio, intended for pious reflection and for the encouragement of faith.